If you’ve ever watched Mike Rowe’s show, “Dirty Jobs,” you’ve probably seen a good bit of the gross.
The Discovery Channel Web site describes the series as profiling the “unsung American laborers who make their living in the most unthinkable — yet vital — ways.”
In the month we observe Veteran’s Day, the title causes me to recall the veterans I’ve watched accomplish dirty jobs. No, not dirty in the sense of greasy, grimy or gross, but dirty in the sense of unenviable jobs few people would want.
For instance, this week I saluted Marine Cpl. Joseph Gonzales as he escorted the body of Kyle Coumas, his childhood friend and the only child of Michael and Lori Coumas, home from Afghanistan. Gonzales received Coumas’ body at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and bought him back to California in a cramped business jet.
In a scene reminiscent of the movie “Taking Chance,” Gonzales stood vigil and delivered dignity to the process.
Earlier this year while serving at the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad Iraq, I worked alongside Sgt. Jennifer Watson in her job as our patient liaison. While hers doesn’t sound like a dirty job, it was. When one of our patients died, she took it upon herself to ensure the soldier wouldn’t die alone.
Holding the hand of each dying soldier, she sat with them until the end, no matter the hour.
“I talk to them,” she said to Staff Sgt. Dilia Ayala, “thanking them for what they have done, telling them they are a hero, they will never be forgotten.”
Four years ago, the National Guard had a dirty job in New Orleans. Upon arriving there, I was attached to the 1/179 Infantry Battalion, 45th Brigade of the Oklahoma Army National Guard as they armed themselves and donned body armor to go into the sweltering slums to find looters, survivors and bodies.
Each mission was dirty, dangerous and often gruesome. During our days there, we kicked down doors to find rotting corpses and chased bad guys down back alleys. It was a dirty job, but thankfully our military was there to do it.
Last month, as I watched reports of the Coast Guard searching for the bodies of nine downed flyers off the California Coast, I recalled what a dirty job that can be. Six years ago, on a sultry morning in June, I waded into the north end of Lake Okeechobee to help recover the remains of Air Force Reserve Maj. Samuel D’Angelo III.
Occasionally, swamp water filled our waders as the medical folks warned about the heat index, waterborne pathogens and water moccasins. We sifted through the pond scum, desperately praying to find the intact body of our comrade. Instead, we only found parts.
When something was found, a call would ring out: “Find!” People stopped. Reverence held us still. The mortuary affairs officer stepped forward to place the remains in the flag-draped ice chest.
I’m often told I have a dirty job because I knock on doors to bring the news of a family member killed in action. But to me, it’s a rewarding job, as I’m sure it was for many of the people described in this column
They are godly jobs. They were done with a mind toward a better place. They were selfless acts honoring those who paid the ultimate price.
There are too many dirty jobs to mention in this column, but as we pause to remember our veterans, these are the ones I’m holding in my heart. I do this because their stories represent the countless veterans who did the dirty jobs and the thankless jobs. But if I have anything to say about it, they always will be the never-to-be-forgotten jobs.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You also can follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.